Background: During the 20th century medical education has been preoccupied largely with discussions of the venues and methods for teaching. Little attention has been paid to what should be learned about the scientific paradigm underlying research and practice. A 17th century model has gradually produced a technically efficient but increasingly narrow, monocausal, reductionistic view of health and disease. This "belief system" fails to accommodate or explain the meaning and impact on patients' health of diverse internal and external experiences and influences. During this period new physics and systemic views of biosystems have extended the Newtonian scientific paradigm beyond its materialistic boundaries, which still determines most of the medical sciences.
Methods: A broad range of historical and contemporary scientific literature is examined in support of four central questions addressed in this three-part series: Is there a reason to examine these matters now? How is medical scientific thinking influenced by the general reorientation of science during the 20th century? Is there is a reason to examine the impact of these changes on medicine now? Will a change of paradigm affect medical practice, research, and education?
Results: The extraordinarily productive contemporary biomedical model should be expanded to include meaningful information about how each patient's experiences impinge on health status.
Conclusions: Family physicians, together with collaborators in the biological and behavioral sciences and other health professionals, should undertake rigorous research to establish the validity of the expanded paradigm espoused. Its impact could be profound on practice, research, education, and policies.